Latvia for new year’s eve was a bit more drunken than our other new year’s spent traveling, when we were in Malaysia (2003-04). A few thousand people gathered under the Freedom Monument in the central part of Riga, danced in the street to pop music courtesy of a live DJ, and oohed and aahed at fireworks exploding directly overhead, closer than I have ever seen them. We were in Latvia for about five days, but most of this time was New Year’s holiday celebrations, and so our opportunities for meeting with seed related contacts were minimal.
Photos Left to right: Powerful statues outside the Latvian Occupation Museum, Beautiful Old town Riga, The liberty Statue (where people where once thrown in jail for putting flowers at its base).
Our first impressions of Latvia seemed to indicate that this country was much more economically developed/ “successful” than Lithuania, judging only by superficial views of the size and glitz of Riga compared to Vilnius, the amount of English speakers, and the general cosmopolitan feel of the city. Because of these opinions, we were expecting the Organic scene here to be more mature than in Lithuania, but we learned that in many ways Latvia is on par with Lithuania, and in some ways has further to go in developing organic agriculture, seeds, and markets.
We had the luck of arranging a last-minute visit with Dr. Livija Zarina of the Priekuli Plant Breeding Institute, about a two hour bus ride north east of Riga. The work at the Institute, whose logo is a potato flower, is focused almost entirely on field crops. The state institute of Priekuli owns 286 hectares and grows on an additional 100 hectares rented from neighbors. The six departments at Priekuli include potato, barley, tritcale and rye breeding programs, agrotechologies, seed production of field crops, and a tissue culture lab. They have also managed a small organic experimental field for many years now, which Dr. Zarina counts as one very important aspect of Priekuli, “We are really rich. Not many places have this, but in ours, it exists.”
Photos right to left: Dr. Zarina our host at the Plant Breeding Station, A beautiful Potato flower for a logo, Display of their pea breeding accomplishments, Short term seed storage, Latvia’s main organic certification office.
Dr. Zarina is the Head of the Agrotechnology Department, and her work is focused mostly on canola. She is also involved in an intensive study that, for at least the past ten years, has been trying to establish a system of crop rotation that is beneficial for fertility needs of organic production of Latvia’s main field crops of rape, rye, barley, peas, and a few others. The experiments are evaluating six fertilizing schemes and soil management practices with 11 different crop rotations.
Livija arranged meetings for us with Dr. Ilze Skrabule, chief potato breeder at Priekuli, as well as with the former President of the Latvian Seed Producers’ Association, Dr. Uldis Miglavs. She also arranged a short visit with one of the two Organic Certifying agencies in Latvia. At these meetings, we learned that the Organic Farming scene in Latvia is very similar to that of its Baltic sister to the south, Lithuania.
In Latvia, organic certification began only six years ago, and already two percent of the arable land (representing about 3,000 farms) is certified organic — most of this certification has been within the past three years because of the EU organic subsidy, as is the case in Lithuania. They also told us that nearly every farmer in Latvia is organic, just not certified. The certifiers here mentioned that they were concerned that if and when the EU drops its subsidy to organic farms, the farms that are certified will drop their organic certification, because there is not much of a price premium in Latvia for organics, and the market here is still in its infancy, as in Lithuania.
The certifiers at the State Ltd. were again amazed, as were the people we spoke to in Lithuania, that there is no subsidy for organic agriculture in the US. They suggested that maybe because there is no subsidy, the inspectors may not be so strict in certifying the farms, but we assured them that the certification agencies that operate in the US are very rigorous.
Currently, Latvia is importing all of the necessary requirements for organic farming from countries such as Germany and Denmark. This includes importing seeds, technologies, processing and certifying techniques, and the money for the subsidies. There is some work being done to evaluate and develop varieties for organic production in and for Latvia, for example Dr. Zarina is currently studying seven varieties of conventional rapeseed to see how it does in organic conditions in Latvia. This is definitely a step in the right direction, but we feel that varieties should be bred specifically for organic conditions. Work must also be done to deal with the other difficulties experienced by organic farmers here — problems with diseases and pests are so severe that sometimes organic growers must do a second sowing. Additionally, crop rotation systems need to be improved to further develop healthy soils because crops such as canola are heavy feeders. Dr. Zarina contends that there are no available organic solutions to problems such as micronutrient deficiencies, which makes plants more susceptible to disease and pests.
The farm-scale organic seed picture only has room for improvement at this point: at the “State Limited Certifying and Testing Center,” the state run organic certifying agency, the chief certifiying specialists told us that when EU organic regulations began requiring organic seeds in 2004, they had no certified seed growers certified from their organization. The first organic seed growers were certified last year, but they grow only cereals and grasses, and it is certainly not enough to meet the country’s needs. There is one privately owned certification agency, controlled also by the Ministry of Agriculture, but the people at the State Ltd did not know whether the other certification agency has any seed growers certified. Because of the lack of organic seed in this country, the farmers have acquired special permission to use conventional seeds on organic farms until organic seed can be produced to meet the farmer’s needs. Nevertheless there is a website that helps people to find organic seeds in Latvia, at www.vaad.gov.lv
There seems to be a greater lack of resources for organic farmers in Latvia, with no “Chamber of Agriculture” or other advocacy and education organization such as exists in Lithuania. There are four extension services in Latvia, and a Service Department of Organic Farms, but these venues are not popular. There is an oranic farmer’s association that tries to help farmers with problems, but the association itself has problems with financing and lack of knowledge. And the certifiers made the observation that farmers don’t have time to devote to such associations and must work at what is profitable. These are the exact reasons given to us days later for the lack of NGOs, volunteer organizations, and grassroots organizations in Russia. This point of view, which is a corollary to “top-down” organizing, seems to be one of the many holdovers in the cultural memory from “Soviet Times,” and an implication of the rapid transition to capitalism. People just don’t want to get involved in efforts that aren’t going to pay them, they don’t have the time, energy, knowledge, or initiative to begin or join an organization “for the greater good” — they just don’t see the point. An example was given in Russia of GreenPeace, where the only Russians involved are paid staff, and the volunteers are all foreigners.
When asked what the biggest problems are for organic farmers in Latvia, we were told the lack of organic seed was number one, followed closely by the lack of organic animal feeds. Farmers also have problems concerning soil health with especially in regards to micronutrient deficiencies, asserting that there was no organic way for farmers to get essential micronutirents to their fields.
One can assume that if we were to ask organic farmers the same question, they might add lack of markets to this list. The market for organic products produced here is local to Latvia, because there is not enough for export. At the same time, organic products are hard to find — we did not see anything organic at the grocery stores we visited, and the people we spoke to knew of only two shops in Riga that feature organic products. The other two options consist of green markets.
Latvia currently boasts ten organic processing plants, which consist of two bakeries, two slaughterhouses, two dairies and a few that work with juice and vegetables — definitely not much for a population of 2.4 million, and it seems not enough for the 3,000 farms that are producing organic food crops. We can only assume that many of the certified organic farmers must sell their produce to conventional processors, like the farmers in Lithuania.
Most farmers need to have another job to support their farming habit, because as in most parts of the world, you don’t get rich on farming. But Livija told us, “you need to decide what is richness — money in your pocket or good things in your head.” and it was implied, good things in your belly.
When we asked if there were many gardens in Latvia, whose growing season lasts only from June 10 to August 25. Dr. Zarina smiled and nodded, adding, “it’s our nature.” Most older people grow in their home gardens or community garden plots the Northern and Eastern Europeran standards of carrots, cabbage, onion, potato, and beets, as well as greenhouse crops such as cucumbers, tomatoes, and basil. Many gardeners save their own seed and share with friends and neighbors, but there is no organization to facilitate change between people in different parts of the country. Dr. Zarina enjoys her garden very much and accepted some seeds from us for herself and to share with her neighbors, and we talked a bit more about gardening. In the end she told us that gardening was something that older people engaged in, perhaps as a holdover from Soviet times. ” Young people have no time for this and it is changing. Life is different [for them].”
Photos from right to left: A little castle exploring near Prekuli, View of a the town and a church from the top of the castle.